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Naftali Bennett’s Calculated Effort to Engage with Vladimir Putin on Ukraine—and Iran


On Saturday night, while Russian forces entered the Ukrainian city of Volnovakha, and blocked convoys of food and medicine intended for the nearby besieged city of Mariupol, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s President, called Naftali Bennett, the Israeli Prime Minister. The two spoke for more than an hour and discussed, Zelensky tweeted, “Russian aggression and the prospects for peace talks”—which, earlier in the day, Zelensky had suggested might take place in Jerusalem. Genuine negotiations would be impossible in Ukraine, Russia, or Belarus, he told reporters: “These are not places where we can come to any understandings on ending the war—I’m not talking about technical meetings but meetings between leaders. I believe Israel can be such a place, especially Jerusalem.”

That call would seem to vindicate what is almost universally framed as Bennett’s “mediation efforts.” They began in earnest a week before, on March 5th, when Bennett travelled to Moscow at the invitation of President Vladimir Putin, with whom the Israeli government, backed by two-thirds of Israeli citizens, continues to maintain normal, if cooled, relations. Zelensky had apparently urged Bennett to attend the meeting, which, Bennett’s office said, had the “blessing and encouragement of all parties”—a seeming reference to the Biden Administration. It lasted three hours—Bennett, an Orthodox Jew, flew on the Sabbath to attend, a violation except when “saving lives.” When the meeting was over, he flew to Germany for talks with Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and reportedly spoke with Zelensky by phone early the next morning—their third conversation in twenty-four hours. “The moment there is even a small opening, and we have the access to all sides and the capability, I see it as a moral duty to make every attempt,” Bennett told the Israeli Cabinet when he was back in Jerusalem.

Bennett can’t be faulted for doing his “moral duty,” but the meaning of “mediator” seems tortured in this context. It normally refers to one whose skills at enabling dialogue or evoking mutual empathy assists willing parties to a compromise. But Bennett has made it clear that, at least on the topic of stopping Russian attacks, he would simply convey Zelensky’s position to Putin, and vice versa, and make no suggestions of his own. This aligns with Israel’s quasi-neutrality on the invasion: condemning it in the United Nations, but refusing to join in U.S. and European sanctions (though, in Slovakia, on Monday, the Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid, said, without elaborating, that Israel would not “be a route to bypass” them); and deflecting Zelensky’s many appeals to send defensive weapons. Israel could be supplying Iron Dome anti-missile defense and drones; it hasn’t even sent helmets. (It has provided medical supplies and cold-weather gear.) Meanwhile, it continues to provide a residence and tax haven for Russian-Jewish oligarchs, some of whom have funded campaigns and projects of Israeli ministers.

So what can Bennett do, other than provide Zelensky an ear to convey his desperation, and Putin a voice to amplify his ultimatum? Bennett, whose government has a shaky one-vote majority in the Knesset, has reasons to present himself as a trusted statesman, which is how his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, sold himself to Israeli voters. (During the election campaign in the summer of 2019, Netanyahu’s team erected a huge billboard in Tel Aviv, showing the former Prime Minister greeting Putin warmly and running the caption: “In Another League.”) But, so far, Putin seems far from wanting a peace process, in spite of continuing talks. And the price for remaining on good enough terms with Putin to offer mediation may prove higher than what two-thirds of Israelis expect.

“Refraining from standing clearly in the Western camp will inevitably damage Israel’s special relationship with the U.S., and for no real gain,” Amos Yadlin, the former commander of Israel’s air force and head of military intelligence, told me. Bennett and Lapid have suggested that, by maintaining relations with Putin, Israel can secure his continued tolerance of Israel’s air war on Iran’s arms pipeline to Hezbollah, in Syria, where Russian forces are embedded. But Russia, Yadlin said, “continues to sell all kinds of advanced weapons to Syria and Iran, some of which do wind up in the hands of terror groups in the north.” In effect, then, Russia is already an adversary, but one now preoccupied with a “global conflict,” and not likely eager for open war between Israel’s overpowering air force and Syrian forces that would amount to another front, in which a client regime could be undermined. (According to Pentagon sources, Russia has sent all its encircling battalions into Ukraine, and is even reportedly recruiting Syrian fighters to go there.)

Indeed, just what messages need Bennett’s conveyance? “All parties knew Putin’s conditions before Bennett’s trip,” the Times’ chief diplomatic correspondent for Europe, Steven Erlanger, told me: “fake independence or Russian annexation of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukraine’s recognition of Russia’s prior annexation of Crimea, and NATO’s recognition of Ukraine’s permanent neutrality.” (“We don’t need another mailbox—we have enough of those,” one Ukrainian official said.) As for providing a venue for talks, “Turkey or Israel would be plausible places for them,” Erlanger said. But, currently, Ukrainian and Russian representatives are continuing talks in Belarus. And, irrespective of Bennett’s Moscow meeting, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, on March 10th, not in Jerusalem but in Antalya, Turkey. (“They seek Ukraine’s surrender,” Kuleba said, after the meeting. “This is not going to happen.”)

None of this suggests that an Israeli mediator (or place for talks, for that matter) will never be needed. Maariv’s Ben Caspit writes that Ze’ev Elkin—the Kharkiv-born, Russian-speaking minister who accompanied Bennett to Moscow—may be one of the few people in the Western world who could “sit a metre away from Putin, listen to him in his own language, grasp his nuances and body language and signs, and divine his real plans.” Bennett and Elkin might then debrief Zelensky “and all others” in need of debriefing. But it is also possible that Putin thought that Bennett might help pressure Zelensky to accept his demands—and that is apparently how some Israelis close to the meeting viewed it. According to a report in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, Bennett’s team left Moscow believing that Putin had made a detailed proposal that would “allow Ukraine to remain sovereign and Zelensky to keep his job,” and that the “ball was in Zelensky’s court’”—as if Russia’s bombarding Ukraine’s civilians, and its intended occupation of its cities, did not portend a “fake independence” and an attempt to install a puppet government. Even more disturbing, Walla news reported that a senior Ukrainian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, claimed that, during a phone call last Tuesday, Bennett told Zelensky, “If I were you, I would think about the lives of my people and take the offer.”

Bennett’s office firmly denied the reports; a Zelensky adviser tweeted a more cryptic response, saying that Israel, “just as other conditional intermediary countries, does NOT offer Ukraine to agree to any demands of the Russian Federation.” But, in a statement on Saturday night, the Ukrainian Defense Minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, seemed to suggest that Zelensky—when expressing gratitude for Bennett’s interventions, or even speculating about a Jerusalem summit—was being, well, diplomatic. “Israel shows unexplained indifference and unwillingness to take a side in the war,” Reznikov said. “This will lead to a lack of trust that will grow between Israel and Ukraine for many years to come, because we will persevere—have no doubt.” Uriel Epshtein, the executive director of the Renew Democracy Initiative, told the Times of Israel that Bennett’s gambit was “self-delusion,” saying, “Israel is a powerful regional power, but it is not in a position to be putting an end to this conflict.”



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